ST. PETE BEACH— Deteriorating homes, yards littered with junk, and overgrown vacant lots are just a few of the unsightly conditions the City Commission hopes to outlaw.
"Residents who have lived here for decades are telling me that they wouldn't move into the community with the way it looks now," said Commissioner Christopher Leonard at a special workshop on Jan. 6 to discuss possible changes to the city's code enforcement rules.
Leonard said the increasing numbers of foreclosures and the deteriorating economy are certain to increase the problem of unsightly properties.
"It's going to be a growing problem," he said.
The commission directed Community Development Director Karl Holley to bring back a new ordinance that would incorporate tougher codes used by other cities and Pinellas County with the city's existing codes relating to property maintenance.
The result will be a single ordinance where property owners — and city officials — can go to find out just what is and is not legal.
This will be the second time the city administration has presented a revised ordinance to the commission. The last time, in October, the commission told Holley it wanted more specifics on what property owners are allowed or not allowed to do, while ensuring that the new regulations are not "overly burdensome."
Holley said he studied ordinances from more than a dozen communities and recommended using codes from the city of Naples as the basis of the city's new rules.
That city's maintenance requirements focus on identifying situations that diminish property values of surrounding properties.
"The standards for maintenance of vacant lots is more specific than ours and does provide a basis for action against property owners," he said.
The more specificity there is in the code, the easier it will be for code enforcement officers to cite property owners, he said.
He cautioned, however, that the city will not cite "technical" violations unless there are repeated and strong complaints from neighbors.
One problem the city must be on guard against, he said, are "vendettas" among neighbors who constantly levy complaints against each other. Also, some residents are more tolerant than others about how their neighbors maintain their property.
"Any standard you have ultimately are just words on a piece of paper," Holley said. "Someone has to decide what are violations and inevitably there are citizens who will disagree with judgments that are made."
Repeated complaints against one property owner involve furniture and equipment left in the home's yard.
"How much lawn furniture are you allowed to have? What condition must it be in? These are questions that must be answered when defining visual blight," Holley said, stressing that detrimental conditions for a neighborhood "cannot always be defined in words."
He said no matter what rules are put into effect, he cannot guarantee that some residents will get "absolutely bent out of shape" about possible code violations on a neighbor's property.
When complaints are made, he said, the city will try to address the problem informally. If that does not work, official letters citing code violations are sent to the property owner. If the problem is not fixed, the violation eventually ends up in front of a special magistrate who can levy fines until the issue is addressed. The process can take months.